World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Three people together examining a plant

The Next California Phase II: Preparing for Action

  • Date: 04 June 2024
  • Author: Julia Kurnik

Our food supply chain is facing critical pressures and an uncertain future. California produces more than two-thirds of the fruits and nuts grown in the US and nearly half of all its vegetables. But due to climate change, water availability, and other factors, depending on California for all that food is increasingly unsustainable.

More than a decade ago, WWF’s Markets Institute identified this growing uncertainty in domestic food production as both a challenge and an opportunity. We set out to find “the next California,” a place to build a sustainable and equitable commercial-level specialty crop industry. We settled on the Mid-Mississippi Delta (western Tennessee, northwestern Mississippi, and eastern Arkansas) as a spot that could ease the pressure on California, avoid converting natural lands to farmland elsewhere in the country, and create an equitable engine of local growth.

In Phase I of our effort, we took a 30,000-foot view, examining the major opportunities and hurdles of such a shift in the Mid-Delta. We’ve now completed Phase II, in which we worked to figure out how to make the shift happen. In partnership with AgLaunch, we built an Advisory Council of diverse stakeholders across the region to inform and drive the work. In parallel, we completed research into three areas: (1) preparing for commercial-level production of specialty crops in the Mid-Delta, (2) developing more diverse, equitable, and inclusive business models from farm to table, and (3) linking specialty crop producers, input suppliers, and downstream processors to innovative business models and finance mechanisms.

The larger goal of this effort is to generate economic development and wealth creation for farmers and local communities. We have worked to catalyze individual efforts and local ownership. There have been numerous steps forward by our partners, such as AgLaunch’s Robotics Consortium, the Arkansas State Department of Agriculture’s specialty crop block grant and Arkansas Grown conference, and the University of Arkansas’ updated curriculum and Agri-Food Innovation Summit. There has also been a chance to highlight and support existing efforts, such as The Natural Soybean and Grain Alliance, Delta Dirt Distillery, and Delta Peanut. And we are very excited about the launch of Foodwise, the project’s first pilot.

In January 2024, Hallie Shoffner, a Next California Advisory Council member and a sixth-generation Arkansas farmer, launched Foodwise to develop and promote high-quality US-grown specialty rice products. Foodwise is working with Black and women farmers across the Mid-Delta to build, test, and scale an easier-to-transition crop that can increase profits to farmers, open new markets for the region, and provide more nutritious and environmentally friendly grains to consumers.

The Next California is now moving directly into Phase III, where we will focus on:

  • supporting and launching additional pilot projects,
  • developing new partnerships and support through Council members,
  • building an ecosystem of partners to disaggregate risk and ultimately move from pilot to scale,
  • examining and addressing data gaps that create barriers for farmers today, and
  • exploring the potential of branding with a new project name, among other activities.

While the impetus for the effort has been shifting food production, it is now also about building something new in the Mid-Delta – an equitable and sustainable farming system that serves as an engine of economic development.

Significant hurdles remain. This is a risky project, and success will require coordinated efforts for years to come. The Next California has set the stage for a radically new farming system in the Mid-Delta that supports underserved farmers, boosts communities, increases wealth creation and job opportunities, brings healthy food to the region and beyond, and diversifies and revitalizes the region. The Mid-Delta can showcase how transitioning crops thoughtfully avoids environmental degradation while boosting an economy in an equitable and just manner – an important lesson for countries and regions worldwide.